Thoughts on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: Horror, Kingship, Hospitality and Lucretius

The picture of human existence in Agamemnon, is of suffering. It is suggested that humans only become wise through suffering, but even more darkly that human happiness leads to disaster and downfall. The idea of a following a middle course of avoiding extremes appears, and idea particularly associated with Aristotle among ancient thinkers, but the idea is present throughout antique philosophy and culture that self-restraint and moderation are at the heart of happiness, the good life and ethics. Good fortune seems to lead to bad fortune, as it seems inevitable that humans will make bad decisions so that good fortune will become the instrument of bad fortune. Good fortune, at the extreme, may attract the malevolent interest of divine forces, which always wish to keep things within proportion and are even jealous of greatness. There is a suggestion that to be a king necessarily attracts that divine jealousy. Those who live in palaces will be noticed by divine forces and punished for standing out too much. Aeschylus is writing at a time when there are no kings in Athens, and the Greeks generally  have adopted some kind of sharing as power in most cases.  For Aristotle a good king has something divine about him, a man of really exceptional goodness would be like a god and would have to be king. By the time Aristotle is writing the Macedonian monarchy, with which he was associated, has established hegemony over Greece, including Athens. Aeschylus died before the birth of Philip II who established that Macedonian monarchy. It is useful to remember that Aristotle’s own comments on Greek tragedy are separated from the time of the great tragedies. The tragedies themselves refer to an even bigger gap in time, the gap between classical Greece, and Bronze Age Greece, or Mycenaean palace civilisation. Between Bronze Age Greece and Classical Greece there is the Greek Dark Ages and Archaic Greece, which produced the Homeric epics, to which the tragedians refer. So the tragedians use this lost age to approach issues of a world which no longer exists, but also in someway that are present in classical antiquity. One message of the time is that concentration of power in one person, or in one family leads to disaster.

The ethics in the tragedies is partly one of avoiding pollution. Clytemnestra creates a pollution that has to be expelled from the community when she murders her husband. Her polluting act is itself a response to an earlier polluting act, Agamemnon sacrificing their daughter. That Clytemnestra is acting out of revenge is not regarded as an extenuating factor in the play. There must  be some sympathy created in the audience, but as the audience was  mostly if not entirely male, there must be a predominant fear and hatred of the woman who pollutes her family and her community by murdering her husband. Her act serves divine vengeance but demands an act of vengeance itself, which the play indicates will come from Orestes, the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. Her adultery with Aegisthus who plans to seize the throne increases the revulsion for the original audience. Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter is itself presented as criminal and polluting, even as madness.There is a complete loss of the general moderation apparently endorsed by Aeschylus. Again, his act serves divine purposes but is in no way excused by that. There is background to that act of madness in the preceding murderous violence within the House of Atreus and the crime of the Trojan prince in seducing the wife of King Menelaus. That is an example of the good fortune which leads to bad fortune, since Menelaus’ happiness with Helen is doomed to be replaced  by the devastation of her departure . There is the suggestion that the greatest good fortune must come from crime, and so must be polluting with catastrophic consequences. If not the crime of that person, then the crime of an ancestor which in this case is Atreus, father of Menelaus and Agamemnon.  The form of tragedy is to show how excess happiness comes from polluting crime and leads to downfall. Clytemnestra’s happiness at killing Agamemnon is just an extreme example of this. These errors of judgement which are so intense they are acts of madness are compared with the failure to understand nature, like the shepherd who looks after a lion cub unit the cub becomes a full grown lion that attacks the shepherd.

The reason for launching a huge navy to take a Greek army to Troy is the breach of laws of hospitality and friendship committed by Paris when he seduced Helen and took her to Troy. The bonds of hospitality and friendship are of extreme importance in the societies of the time of Aeschylus. Friendship is a major aspect of ethics for Aristotle, though in this he is abstracting from customary codes which we can see in the Homeric epics, where hospitality and friendship are among the deep issues. Troy shares the guilt of Paris, because King Priam shelters both him and Helen. The breach of hospitality and friendship, including familial ties, is at issue when Agamemnon returns to his palace in Argos to be murdered by his cousin, who has become the lover of this wife. The Paris-Helen adulterous coupling has been replaced by Aegisthus-Clytemnestra. Agamemnon finds himself the victim of inhospitality in his own home which has become a hostile place in his absence. Clytemnestra appears to offer the most extreme hospitality, treating him like a Persian king (an anachronism since Persians do not appear in the Homeric world). The play rests on the destruction of royal families, containing the suggestion that all kings are by nature of the role excessive, going beyond bounds, so inviting some kind of divine attack. Agamemnon is presented as a consultative law abiding king, so maybe a resisting excess. Clytemnestra’s attempted transformation of him in absolutist king is part of his destruction. The message seems to be that kingship is an excessive form of power, perhaps mitigated by respect for law and consultation, but definitely ripe for destruction when it goes beyond those bounds.

The destruction of the king is part of  vision of human life. The destruction has a dream like aspect, foreseen by Cassandra (the salve woman and prophetess from Troy) whose visions mingle the slaying of Agamemnon, Atreus murdering the sons of Thyestes, and the total violence of the fall of Troy, which consumes everyone including babies. The chorus early on suggests that life becomes vague, something like a dream in old age. Menelaus is reported to have such a state after his loss of Helen. Human existence stands on an abyss of horror which emerges in the dream like vision of the old, the grief stricken and those who communicate with the gods.

The killing of Agamemnon is preceded by Clytemnestra treating him as a very exalted king, which disturbs Agamemnon since he thinks that exaltation makes him like a Persian king, not a Greek king who follows law and consults his people. He is a model of kingship from that point of view, though the play at least once indicates that his murder of his daughter did not even serve the purpose it was supposed to satisfy of bringing a wind to take the Greek ships to Troy, something to be achieved by a sacrifice to Artemis. Towards the end of the pay, this act is presented as done to appease the superstition of his men and not as a cruel necessity imposed by the gods. It may be this passage that Lucretius is thinking of in On Nature when he refers to overcoming the superstitious fear that led to the sacrifice of Iphigenia.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: Horror, Kingship, Hospitality and Lucretius

  1. “The ethics in the tragedies is partly one of avoiding pollution.”

    I think that is your best line to date. It really gave me pause, wondering what does it mean and how does it work. I never thought tragedy could be ethical or function ethically. The tragedy is that often tragedy itself can’t prevent pollution. But, then, would there be anything like tragedy if there weren’t pollution?

    Since there will always be pollution there will always be tragedies. Thus, we will always be entertained and be left on the edge of our seats.

  2. On second thought it is not how I read it, that tragedy is ethical. Tragedy is not ethical. It is neutral. It evokes ethics in us.

    • Hello David.
      Thanks very much for your comments. Tragedy takes the ‘ethic’ of pollution in antiquity, shows how it leads to an un relenting cycle of revenge, and the horror of this. I think it also gets us to think about an ethic in which we can avoid that horror, which I think is compatible with your comments. More on this for the next 8 weeks, I’m blogging on 9 Greek tragedies I am teaching this semester.

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